Judge blocks Trump rule to limit health studies in EPA regs

A federal judge has blocked a last-minute rule issued by the Trump administration to limit what evidence the Environmental Protection Agency may consider as it regulates pollutants to protect public health.

Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Jan. 6 rule was aimed at ending what he and other Republicans call "secret science.″ Some industry and conservative groups had long pushed for the change, saying public health studies that hold confidential and potentially identifying data about test subjects should be made public so the underlying data can be scrutinized before the EPA issues rules aimed at protecting public health.

Wheeler called the rule an attempt to boost transparency about government decision-making, but critics said it was hastily imposed and would threaten patient confidentiality and the privacy of individuals in public health studies that underlie federal regulations.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana ruled late Wednesday that the EPA had unlawfully rushed the regulation, saying its decision to make it final just two weeks before then-President Donald Trump left office was "arbitrary" and "capricious." Morris delayed the rule until at least Feb. 5, giving the new Biden administration time to assess whether to go forward with it or make changes.

An EPA spokesman said Friday the agency is "committed to making evidence-based decisions and developing policies and programs that are guided by the best science.”

EPA "will follow the science and law in accordance with the Biden-Harris administration’s executive orders and other directives in reviewing all of the agency’s actions issued under the previous administration,” including the so-called Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science rule, spokesman Ken Labbe said in a statement.

Wheeler defended the rule, which was finalized in early January after years of debate.

"If the American people are to be regulated by interpretation of these scientific studies, they deserve to scrutinize the data as part of the scientific process and American self-government,″ he wrote in a Jan. 4 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. "Transparency is a defense of, not an attack on, the important work done by career scientists at the EPA, along with their colleagues at research institutions around the country.”

But the change was so broadly written that it could limit not only future public health protections, but also "force the agency to revoke decades of clean air protections," said Chris Zarba, former head of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

He and other critics said the rule jeopardized use of public health studies, such as Harvard’s 1990s Six Cities study, which drew on anonymized, confidential health data from thousands of people to better establish links between air pollution and higher mortality. The studies have been instrumental in crafting health and environmental rules for decades. The Six Cities study led to new limits on air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Ben Levitan, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which challenged the Trump rule in court, said the rule’s purpose was not to promote transparency, as Wheeler and other officials argued.

"Its purpose and effect is to disregard and devalue the harm pollutants and toxics cause, and therefore deprive the public of needed protection based on those studies,” Levitan said Friday.

The Trump rule would restrict regulators’ consideration of findings from public health studies unless the underlying data from them are made public. The rule deals with so-called dose response findings, which look at harm suffered at varying exposures to a pollutant or other toxic agent.

The change, which was made final without a required 30-day notice, came after hundreds of thousands of earlier objections from scientists, public-health experts, regulators, academics, environmental advocates and others in public hearings and written remarks, in some of the strongest protests of a proposed EPA rule change.

The new limits on considering scientific findings were among scores of Trump changes to roll back environmental regulations or hinder the ability of the Biden administration to impose new regulations. Other late-term rollbacks gutted protections for birds from unintentional killings by industry and aimed to open up formerly protected areas of the Arctic wilderness for oil and gas leasing. Both have been blocked by executive orders issued by President Joe Biden.

Many of the changes imposed by Trump face court challenges and can be reversed by executive action or by lengthier bureaucratic process. But undoing them will take time and effort by the Biden administration, which has set ambitious goals to fight climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions and lessen the impact of pollutants on lower-income and minority communities.